A Night Off the Leash: Drunk and Shouting Against bin Laden at the World Trade Center
After my best friend’s wedding reception last year I briefly led a shuttle bus of drunken people in a chant of “USA” as we were driven back to the local hotel where out-of-towner’s were staying. I was drunk and elated, happy to see someone I’d known since the age of 4 make a grand romantic gesture with his life and also because the event itself was delightfully multicultural. On the one side were a group of Russian immigrants–by way of Turkey–and on the other side a family of Mexican immigrants, including the father of the bride who was a judge and presided over the ceremony.
I didn’t feel pride at that moment so much as lucky to have known these people of various histories, beliefs, and ages. In another time we might have sung a show tune but the idea of communal music has escaped us at some point during the last century. “The Birthday Song” was all I could pull from my own memory banks and so instead I leaned on national kitsch and began rhythmically chanting the initials of our country–taken by force from natives for the benefit of secular European enlightenment, the country of huddled masses and e pluribus unum. It was, at that time of night, not hard to convince the passengers of the bus to join in.
After learning Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan last night I walked the two miles downtown to the World Trade Center site to meet my friend B. I had expected the streets to be irrationally busy for being 2AM on a Sunday night but the things remained empty as I moved southward. Two blocks from the World Trade Center site I saw the first sign of something slightly unusual, an empty police trailer used for transporting police horses. At Church and Vesey, on the Northeastern corner of the still empty pit surrounded by giant metal cranes and the all-night lights of the still traumatized skyscrapers on the perimeter, a crowd of 300-400 people were squeezed into the center of the intersection.
Like other improvised public gatherings, there seemed to be no clear understanding of what to actually do when gathered together on the rim of the site where ten years earlier people were jumping from windows and firefighters were being irrevocably contaminated by asbestos and toxic dust. Someone had climbed up a street sign and was waving a small American flag. A few feet away a young man was thrown into the air by the crowd like someone playing on a trampoline. Every time he was sent upward the crowd cheered. Someone started to sing “America the Beautiful” and soon the whole mass had taken up the melody. It stopped almost as quickly when no one seemed to know what came after “God shed his grace on thee.”
Some young men very soon after turned the attempt at song into a chant, “USA! USA! USA!” with arms bent and fists hammering the air. Over the next several minutes this violent pantomime went through a number of variations, including “Burn in hell! Burn in hell! Burn in Hell!” and “Fuck Osama! Fuck Osama! Fuck Osama!” As I walked to the southern end of the intersection I saw a tall, drunken man following two young women through the crowd. “Get the fuck away from us,” one of them said, flinching away as he reached out to grab her shoulder from behind. The man took another few steps after them and the women quickened their walk and left the crowd as they moved south down Church Street, leaving the man stalled at the edge, a lonely figure unwilling to leave the cover of the collective.
I moved to the other side of the crowd and saw an older man with white hair bound back in a pony tail drinking a tallboy of light beer block the way of a pretty news reporter carrying a camera on a tripod by herself. He raised his can of beer to her and she stopped momentarily realizing the way forward was blocked. She looked directly at the man and then stepped two feet to the side and walked around him as quickly as her heels would allow. A young group of men in black hooded sweatshirts stood beside the pnytailed man drinking beer and Four Loko chanting. One of the young men tried to engage another man pushing through the crowd to join them in shouting “USA!” When he saw he was being ignored he squared his shoulders and tensed his face. “Hey fuck you, faggot!” he called out.
My friend B was late. He had walked over the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn. He was stopped by a police officer stationed at its pedestrian entrance because he was carrying a cloth tote bag. The police officer pulled his gun on him as he approached, forcing him to drop to the ground and subsequently slapping the cell phone he’d been holding out of his hand, the plastic shell splitting apart on the pavement. After demonstrating his submissiveness and proving that he was really just a nice Jewish guy from Long Island, B was allowed to leave. When he arrived at the World Trade Center he had accepted the logic of the police. He should have known better than attempt to walk across a bridge with an empty tote bag and a cell phone. The times conspire against us.
Later, we both watched as two men in kilts climbed atop a pay phone and played “Amazing Grace” as the crowd watched. Then they transitioned into “We Will Rock You” and the crowd recognized this as a cue to sing along again. They sang only the chorus, unaware that the song is actually about the lifelong suffering of a working class man beaten down by his society, an “old man, poor man, pleadin’ with your eyes.”
As I walked home I thought of the impromptu riots that sometimes occur afters sports games. Last year I’d been in downtown Los Angeles after the Lakers won the NBA championship and a group of celebrants turned violent. “That’s what’s up! That’s what’s up! That’s what’s up!” someone had started to chant as young men took turns kicking a metal box planted in the sidewalk. They were laughing with anger. The day after September 11th 2001, Hunter S. Thompson noted that even ESPN had been broadcasting war news. It shouldn’t be surprising that our collective instincts took the stomping chants and tunes of sport to exorcise the emotions elicited by the killing of a pathetic and cowardly villain–the anti-climax of ten years of amorphous war, beheadings, torture, collateral damage, incomprehensible civilian death, and the compromising of our legal standards, all steered by three helplessly incoherent government administrations.
Marking the death of bin Laden–allegedly hiding behind the body of his bought wife at the very end–I feel exactly the opposite of how I felt when I was the instigator of my own nationalist chant. Killing bin Laden seems a somber moment, not a celebratory one–an occassion to mark just how deeply invested in the dark maze of nation building, factional warfare, and religious insanity we remain in. The black beast of terrorism is gone but we still seem to be surrounded by beasts in every direction.
“Make no mistake about it,” Thompson wrote on September 12, 2001. “We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives…It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.”
We are still at war, still vulnerable to the violent potential of both strangers and neighbors, sometimes their crimes are forgettably individual and other times they are cruel enough to define a generation. bin Laden is dead but he has still defined us. Even in death he reminds us how easily we can be induced to celebrate killing, troubling the air with cries of mammalian supremacy, the backdrop against which even the truly mad can appear like leaders.
*Images via author
**Hunter S. Thompson on 9/11 (via Totally Gonzo)
Laker’s Big Win Sparks Rioting (via Time)
Obituary: Osama bin Laden (via Al Jazeera)
Steve Coll’s Notes on bin Laden (via The New Yorker)
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